TIME medicine

Vaccines Don’t Cause Autism, Even in Kids at Higher Risk

"We are able to look at the vaccines and show there is no association with autism"

In the latest study on the vaccines, researchers find even more evidence that childhood immunizations aren’t linked to autism.

In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, a group led by Dr. Anjali Jain of the Lewin Group, a health care consulting organization, found that brothers and sisters of children with autism were not at any higher risk of developing the disorder if they were vaccinated compared with brothers and sisters of those without autism.

Numerous studies have found an increased risk of autism among those with older siblings with the condition, and some parents who believe that their older child’s autism is connected to vaccinations, specifically the MMR vaccine, have been reluctant to immunize their younger children. Indeed, Jain found that vaccination rates among siblings of autistic children were lower, at about 86% at 5 years, compared with 92% among those without autistic brothers or sisters.

But among the 95,000 children with older siblings included in the study, children who received the MMR and had autistic older siblings were no more likely to develop autism than children who were vaccinated and didn’t have any autistic older siblings. In fact, the relative risk of autism among those with older autistic brothers or sisters was lower if they were vaccinated compared with those who were not vaccinated.

“Our study confirmed that in kids with older siblings who we know are at increased risk of developing autism themselves, those kids are being vaccinated less,” says Jain. “But in the kids who did develop autism who were vaccinated, there was no increased risk from the vaccine compared to kids who did not get the vaccine.”

The results, she says, should put to rest any concerns that parents of autistic children might have that vaccinating their younger kids will somehow increase their risk of developing autism. The large size of the study, and the fact that vaccination and autism information wasn’t collected for purposes of a vaccines-and-autism study but as part of a larger health insurance database, also reinforce the strength of the findings. (The Lewin Group is an editorially independent part of Optum company, which collected the data.)

“We may not understand what is causing autism in these kids or families,” says Jain. “There could be a host of both genetic and environmental factors. But we are able to look at the vaccines themselves and show there is no association with autism.”

Read next: HPV Vaccine May Work for People Who Already Had the Virus

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TIME Autism

Diabetes During Pregnancy Could Be Linked to Autism, Study Finds

Pregnant Pregnancy
Getty Images

Reasons for the potential link are uncertain

(CHICAGO) — Diabetes that develops early in pregnancy may increase women’s chances of having a child with autism, according to a new study.

The risk was seen in young children whose mothers were diagnosed with diabetes during the most crucial period of fetal brain development. Reasons for the potential link are uncertain but it’s possible that exposure to high levels of blood sugar from the mother disrupt fetal brain growth, especially in brain regions important for communication and social behavior, said study co-author Dr. Edward Curry, a learning and behavior specialist for Kaiser Permanente in Fontana, California.

Here are five things to know about diabetes in pregnancy, autism and the study, published in Tuesday’s Journal of the American Medical Association.

THE STUDY

The researchers looked at medical records for more than 322,000 children born at Kaiser Permanente hospitals in Southern California between 1995 and 2010. Those whose mothers developed gestational diabetes by the 26th week of pregnancy were 40 percent more likely to be diagnosed with autism than those whose moms didn’t have diabetes. Of about 3,400 autistic children, 130 were exposed to diabetes early in pregnancy.

Autism affects about 1 in 68 U.S. children. In the study, youngsters whose mothers had pre-existing diabetes or developed it later in pregnancy faced no extra autism risk.

AUTISM

Autism refers to a spectrum of developmental disorders that typically involve problems communicating, limited social skills and sometimes intellectual difficulties or quirky, repetitious behaviors. Definitive causes aren’t known but it is thought to occur when genetic differences interact with many other factors. Previous studies have suggested these may include prenatal infections, preterm birth and parents’ age

DIABETES

Diabetes prevents the body from making or properly using insulin, which causes sugar to build up in the blood. The study looked specifically at gestational diabetes, which develops during pregnancy and puts women at risk for future diabetes. It can be dangerous for women, and can cause preterm birth or large newborns who are at risk for diabetes later in life. Gestational diabetes is thought to affect up to about 14 percent of U.S. pregnancies.

STUDY LIMITATIONS

Some previous studies linked diabetes in mothers with autism but lacked details on gestational versus pre-existing diabetes.

The authors of the new study, led by Kaiser Permanente researcher Anny Xiang, looked back at medical records that included gestational diabetes information — a research method that can only show potential links, not proof. They couldn’t rule out different factors that may have contributed to autism including other prenatal problems and genetics.

THE ADVICE

The findings underscore the importance of prenatal care, including diabetes screening and treatment early in pregnancy. But the authors note that more research is needed to determine if early treatment of gestational diabetes can reduce autism risks.

Read next: 7 Things Every Kid with Autism Wishes You Knew

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TIME Australia

Australian School Under Investigation for Putting Child With Autism in ‘Cage’

The incident has signaled an urgent need for a national standard for autism education in mainstream schools, say mental health experts

Australian education officials are investigating a Canberra school where a boy with autism was allegedly placed in a cage-like structure.

The two-meter by two-meter area made of pool fencing was used as a “withdrawal space” for the ten-year-old pupil, reports ABC.

Local education minister Joy Burch has ordered a full independent inquiry and the school’s principal has been removed while the investigation takes place.

Dina Joseph, the director general of the ACT’s Education and Training Directorate, called the structure “entirely inappropriate and unacceptable” and that the school’s decision “raises so many questions.”

Education experts say the incident signals an urgent need for a national standard of autism education in mainstream schools.

“The truth is, children with autism are often put into education systems with very limited support,” said Autism Awareness Australia director Nicole Rogerson.

Though education experts say calm areas where children with autism can go if they feel overwhelmed or agitated can be beneficial, physically separating a child in a restrictive space was not standard practice, and many experts favor positive reinforcement instead. If used, calm areas can simply be a different seat in the classroom or the use of headphones.

“Under our philosophy of positive behaviors, we wouldn’t ever use such a practice [as a cage],” Trevor Clark, the national director for education for Autism Spectrum Australia, told ABC. “The teachers in schools must understand autism, they must understand the challenges and then of course accommodate the classroom.”

TIME Parenting

7 Things Every Kid with Autism Wishes You Knew

Therapist with autistic boy
WILL & DENI MCINTYRE; Getty Images/Photo Researchers RM

April 2 is World Autism Awareness Day

Every kid is different. So is every individual with autism. But if you’re looking to connect with a child living with autism, Ellen Notbohm, author of Ten Things Every Child With Autism Wishes You Knew, and the mother of an autistic son, says keeping these things in mind can help.

My senses don’t work like yours. For a child living with autism, the sensory impressions of daily life—noises from machines, , the flickering of fluorescent lights, cooking smells— “can be downright painful,” Nothbohm writes. Remember, a world that seems unremarkable to you may be overwhelming to them.

I’m a concrete thinker. “Idioms, puns, nuances, inferences, metaphors, allusions and sarcasm are lost” on children with autism, Nothbohm writes. Instead, communicate with literal language.

I’m a visual thinker. Children with autism have a harder time absorbing spoken words. But they can study visual information until they really understand it. So “show me how to do something rather than just telling me,” Nothbohm writes. “Lots of patient practice helps me learn.”

I have many ways to communicate. Words are not always the best way for a child with autism to interact or convey his or her needs. “But be alert for body language, withdrawal, agitation, or other signs,” Nothbohm writes. “They’re there.”

Focus on what I can do, not what I can’t. Just like anyone else, it’s hard for children with autism to learn when they’re made to feel like they’re not measuring up. But “look for my strengths and you will find them,” Nothbohm writes. “There is more than one right way to do most things.”

Help me join in. Children with autism may seem as if they don’t want to participate in social activities. But in fact, they may just be unsure about how to join in. “Teach me how to play with others,” Nothbohm writes. “Encourage other children to invite me to play along. I might be delighted to be included.”

I’m more than my autism. “If you think of me as just one thing,” Nothbohm writes, “you run the danger of setting up expectations that may be too low.” The reality? “Neither you nor I yet know what I may be capable of.”

Every week TIME gathers up the best parenting stories in one handy newsletter. It’s free. Subscribe here.

TIME

There’s a Reason Everything on Facebook Is Blue Today

The statue of Christ the Redeemer is lit up in blue for the "Light It Up Blue" campaign to mark the World Autism Awareness Day in Rio de Janeiro
Pilar Olivares—Reuters The statue of Christ the Redeemer is lit up in blue for the "Light It Up Blue" campaign to mark the World Autism Awareness Day in Rio de Janeiro April 1, 2015.

What is #LIUB?

Earlier this week, Jay Z asked a group of musicians to turn their Twitter avatars bright blue to promote his new music streaming service, Tidal.

But on Thursday, social media users might be noticing that many of their friends, family and, yes, favorite celebrities have decided to “Light It Up Blue” as well. And it doesn’t have anything to do with a paid music subscription service.

April 2 marks National Autism Day, and to raise awareness, Autism Speaks explains on its site, “Thousands of iconic landmarks, communities, businesses and homes across the globe unite by shining bright blue lights in honor of the millions of individuals and families around the world affected by autism.”

https://twitter.com/davidefaraone/status/583366419364122624

And, of course, people on social media are participating by posting photos of themselves sporting the color and pictures of loved ones who have autism, all with the hashtag #LIUB.

Even celebrity ambassadors Ronan Farrow and Carole King are getting in on the action:

This blue definitely doesn’t make you feel blue.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: March 16

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. There are no winners in a currency war, either. Here’s why the U.S. is carrying the burden of the global recovery.

By Mark Gilbert in Bloomberg News

2. Despite slow and censored Internet and the weakest mobile phone penetration in Latin America, Cuba is the land of opportunity for daring tech investors.

By Ramphis Castro in Re/code

3. Anyone with a smartphone can become a mobile environmental monitoring station.

By Brian Handwerk in Smithsonian Magazine

4. Permanent, easily accessible criminal records are holding back too many Americans. It’s time to “ban the box.”

By Ruth Graham in the Boston Globe

5. Autism Village is an app that helps families find autism-friendly businesses.

By Olga Khazan in The Atlantic

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: March 9

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Take a data dive to see how a ring of suburban poverty is appearing around America’s revived cities.

By Luke Juday at the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia

2. Don’t worry about Russia giving up on nuclear cooperation and the International Space Station.

By Lisa Saum-Manning in U.S. News & World Report

3. Scientists reverse-engineered social networks to learn how to fight HIV among homeless youth by word of mouth.

By Jessica Leber in Fast Co.Exist

4. A Pyrenees pipeline could weaken Putin’s grip on European energy.

By Paul Ames in Global Post

5. For developmentally disabled kids, the benefits of organized sports are huge.

By Darrin Steele in Quartz

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: February 9

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. A humanitarian intervention for Aleppo could provide a glimmer of hope in Syria.

By Ana Palacio in Project Syndicate

2. The U.S. needs a new Church Committee to strengthen oversight of our intelligence services.

By Michael German at the Brennan Center for Justice

3. A regional force is the wrong approach to fight Boko Haram — and might make things worse.

By Hilary Matfess in Al Jazeera America

4. The mystery of autism might be unlocked by studying the microorganisms in children’s stomachs.

By Ruth Ann Luna at the Baylor College of Medicine

5. Test for HIV and syphilis with an iPhone.

By Tasbeeh Herwees in Good

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Autism

Siblings With Autism Less Similar Than Previously Thought, Study Says

Surprising study has implications for care

The majority of siblings diagnosed with autism do not share the same genetic mutation, according to a new study.

Using whole-genome sequencing technology, scientists looked at the genetic material of 85 families that had two children diagnosed with autism, the New York Times reports. Of those sibling pairs, about 30% shared the same genetic glitch, while roughly 70% did not. Those who shared the same genetic issue had similar habits compared to those who didn’t.

“We anticipated that, more often than not, there would be shared inheritance” said Dr. Stephen Scherer, professor of medicine at the University of Toronto and the project’s research director. “That wasn’t the case.”

Some experts say the study, which appears in the journal Nature Medicine, will likely lead to changes in hospitals, whose staff sometimes study the oldest child with autism to gain insight into the younger child’s diagnosis. Hospitals also use genetic profiles to advise parents about the likelihood of having another child with the same diagnosis.

“This study makes us step back and realize we’re not necessarily going to get as much predictive value out of genetic mapping as we thought,” Helen Tager-Flusberg, a Boston University developmental neuroscientist who didn’t work on the study, told the Times.

[NYT]

TIME Developmental Disorders

Parents May Be Able to Lower Kids’ Autism Risk

Boy (7-9), rear view, close-up
Sean Justice—Getty Images

With the help of videos and trained therapists, parents of at-risk kids may eventually help their toddlers to avoid an autism diagnosis

Autism experts still disagree over a lot of things about the developmental disorder, but there is one idea that unites most of them — that the earlier the condition can be diagnosed, and the sooner interventions, from medications to behavioral therapies, can be tried, the more likely that child will be to develop normally.

The latest research, published Wednesday in the journal Lancet Psychiatry, pushes this idea even further by intervening with one of the youngest group of babies yet — those who are 7 months to 10 months old. Jonathan Green from the University of Manchester, in England, and his colleagues say that teaching parents to get more in tune with the signals coming from infants who are at high risk of developing autism can change their babies’ behavior and shift them toward a pattern of more normal development.

MORE: Autism Symptoms Disappeared With Behavioral Therapy in Babies

The scientists focused on a group of 54 families with at least one autistic child. About 20% of siblings of autistic children end up developing the disorder themselves, so Green and his team randomly assigned parents of these babies to either receive a new parent-training program or to get no additional intervention at all. While previous studies have also looked at such parenting programs, most have focused on toddlers once they have been diagnosed with autism, which generally occurs around age 3.

During the training sessions, which occurred over five months, a therapist visited the home and videotaped parents interacting with their infants and then analyzed the behaviors. Rather than assuming the babies would make sounds or fidget if they wanted something, parents were asked to pay close attention to the signs their infants were providing, and find ways to recognize and respond to them so the babies would be more likely to engage and interact with their parents rather than turn away. After at least six such sessions, the infants of parents who did this showed improvements in their ability to pay attention, as well as better flexibility in shifting their attention from one object to another. Presumably the plasticity, or flexibility of the developing brain, especially in the first year of life, is making it possible to redirect some of the processes that may be veering toward autism.

MORE: How Brain Waves May Be the Clue to Diagnosing Autism

“Taken together, we think all of these improvements across different areas of measurement suggest that we improved risk markers for autism at this age,” Green said during a news conference discussing the findings. “Therefore logically we can say that we potentially lowered the risk of later autism development in these infants. At this point we think the results are promising.”

He stressed that the babies have not been tested yet for autism, which will occur when they are around 3 years old, but that the changes he and his team saw strongly suggest that the path to autism may have been interrupted, or at least suppressed in some way. “What we hope is to eventually demonstrate that by changing something critical in the environment, that we can push the organic brain-development process, the neurocognitive process, back on a typical trajectory,” says Tony Charman, a professor of psychology at King’s College London and one of the co-authors. “That’s the theoretical hope.”

MORE: Major Autism Studies Identify Dozens of Contributing Genes

The findings aren’t the first to show that intervening at such an early age with high-risk babies can potentially lower their chances of developing autism. In 2014, researchers at the University of California, Davis, tested an intensive parenting model in which parents engaged in intensive, focused play with their infants who were 6 months old, and achieved similarly encouraging results. In that study, the infants even showed brain changes that suggested their cognitive processes were normalizing to look more like those of children unaffected by autism. In Green’s study, they also saw evidence that the infants’ ability to shift attention improved after the parenting sessions to look more like those at low risk of developing autism.

MORE: Behavior Therapy Normalizes Brains of Autistic Children

Green said that the findings need to be repeated with dozens more families, but he’s encouraged by the initial success. “These parents need to have enhanced skills to deal with some of the biological vulnerability they are faced with in their children,” he said. “There are great advantages to parent-mediated interventions of this kind; once the parents are skilled up in this way, the therapy can go on 24-7 at home. It’s important to intervene throughout childhood.”

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